The Vikings’ plan for 2016 looked logical, and was vetted in 2015, when they won 11 regular-season games and should have won a playoff game.
This season they planned to count on Mike Zimmer’s leadership, Norv Turner’s offense, Anthony Barr’s big plays, Teddy Bridgewater’s improvement, Laquon Treadwell’s arrival and Adrian Peterson’s force of will.
They will need a completely new plan for 2017.
The Vikings’ original blueprint got them to 5-0 this season even without Bridgewater, but their collapse has called into question everything they thought they had built.
Turner quit during the middle of the season.
Bridgewater might never be the same.
Treadwell contributed nothing.
Peterson rushed for 37 yards and 1.9 yards per carry between injuries and likely will never wear purple again.
Barr’s season was a rumor of a whisper.
Their 5-0 start wasn’t a fluke. The Vikings beat quality teams before injuries to the offensive line destroyed their season. There is a good team in there somewhere under the rubble.
With Sam Bradford performing admirably under difficult circumstances, they might be a couple of offensive tackles and a starting running back away from contending again.
The strangest part of the Vikings’ collapse hasn’t been injuries, which occur with frightening regularity around the league, or Peterson’s inevitable decline.
The strangest part of the collapse has been Zimmer’s awkward attempts at leadership.
During the first five weeks of the season, Zimmer acted with an arrogance that would surprise those who knew him in Dallas and Cincinnati.
He tried to create an us-against-the-world environment with his players, which often works in the short term but is too shallow and clichéd to have staying power.
With the team 5-0 and enjoying a bye week, he resorted to leaving stuffed animals around the complex to remind players that, in his words, “Fat cats get slaughtered.”
The team is 2-8 since the Slaughtered Cat Curse.
As the team flailed, Zimmer tried a variety of approaches publicly, sometimes criticizing players, which is his right but does not always play well in the locker room. Too often, Zimmer sounded like he was absolving himself of blame, even though his clock management led to one of the season’s most important losses, at home against Detroit.
When the Vikings were eliminated on Christmas Eve in Green Bay, he admitted that his cornerbacks did not initially follow his directions, and cornerback Xavier Rhodes confirmed this while speaking emotionally and defending his teammates.
The Vikings tried to spin the disagreement into a simple “miscommunication.” It wasn’t.
The cornerbacks in question, Terence Newman and Rhodes, are favorites of Zimmer’s. Both are quality players and teammates. Newman is one of the most admirable players in the league. Rhodes is a fine young corner who has thrived under Zimmer.
Some time in the past 10 weeks, Zimmer gave some of his key players reason to believe they could and should freelance.
An NFL head coach can afford to lose games, but not key players.
Zimmer vowed to examine his work this week before making decisions.
He will need to decide whether Pat Shurmur should continue to run the offense, and what the offense will look like.
He will need to find a way for his team to run the ball and stop the run, two aspects of the game that aren’t necessarily vital for other teams but are the basis of Zimmer’s original blueprint.
And he and General Manager Rick Spielman will have to fix the offensive line.
Despite their collapse, the Vikings are in better shape than most NFL teams. They have one or two quality starting quarterbacks, depending on Bridgewater’s recovery. They have a defense that can be great under the right circumstances.
Zimmer’s most important work in January will occur between his ears. He needs to re-establish himself as a leader.
Zimmer is 25-22 and 0-1 in the playoffs as an NFL head coach. He built up enough goodwill in 2015 to survive this implosion, but let’s not kid ourselves:
His performance over the past 10 games would have gotten Brad Childress, Leslie Frazier or Mike Tice fired.